Part of the first generation of young whites who looked to the blues for inspiration, Tracy Nelson began her recording career 47 years ago. Her band Mother Earth was part of the San Francisco psychedelic scene, and she has recorded country, rock, blues, and soul, not to mention various combinations of these genres. Her rich, husky alto has retained its expressive power all along the way. Tracy Nelson is one of America’s greatest vocalists.
Tracy Nelson's Victim Of The Blues
After releasing You’ll Never Be A Stranger At My Door, a collection of country and western covers back in 2007, Nelson decided to revisit her blues roots for this new album. After assembling a first-rate band – including Nashville-based blues-rock guitarist Mike Henderson; long-time session fave keyboardist Jimmy Pugh (you’ve seen his name on albums by Robert Cray, John Lee Hooker, and Chris Isaak); bassist Byron House, currently of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, and who has worked with Jorma Kaukonen and Sam Bush; and Nashville session drummer extraordinaire John Gardner (credits include Dixie Chicks, Willie Nelson, Phoebe Snow, and dozens more) – Nelson put them to work on a terrific selection of mostly Chicago blues-based old favorites. Producer Mike Dysinger does a masterful job, getting a sound where the snare drum snaps, the acoustic bass resonates through the wood, the guitar crackles, the organ breathes, and Nelson’s vocals are clear and present.
Two Howlin' Wolf covers are included. “You’ll Be Mine” emphasizes the love and tenderness that was always implicit in Wolf’s original underneath all his dangerous bluster. Nelson lets the melody soar over Pugh’s tinkling piano and rigidly enticing guitar from Henderson. The latter’s solo burns particularly hard here. For “Howlin’ For My Baby,” Nelson invites her old friend Angela Strehli for a duet. Again, Henderson is pitch-perfect, using insinuating guitar chatter to hint at the sexual aggression Wolf put at the forefront. On the chorus, Nelson’s voice is almost as powerful as Wolf’s.
Jimmy Reed's Honest I Do
The other artist to earn two covers is Jimmy Reed – Nelson’s liner notes explain that she lost her virginity to “Honest I Do,” so she must pay tribute. For “Shoot My Baby,” Marcia Ball guest stars on piano and harmony vocals. You can tell Nelson is having a blast singing this which, in the hands of a female singer, stands with the Dixie Chicks classic “Goodbye Earl” as a joyous tale of revenge on the traitorous male. “I Know It’s A Sin,” like several other cuts here, benefits from the gospel-based harmony and call-and-response backing vocals provided by Vicki Carrico, Reba Russell, John Cowan, Terry Tucker, and James “Nick” Nixon.
The title track comes from a Ma Rainey number that Nelson only recently discovered. Henderson plays something billed as a banjolin, which presumably is a mandolin with banjo strings, and which sounds eerily evocative of some long-lost time outside the actual recording of blues. Nelson clearly loves the old diva blues songs of the 1920s, and she wrings every possible nuance out of this gem. Nelson is a master of dynamics – she can sing louder and with more oomph than just about anybody, but she loves to hold back and just raise the roof when it most perfectly matches the mood of the lyrics.
Muddy Waters' One More Mile
“One More Mile” is an even better example of Nelson’s way with delivery. This Muddy Waters slow blues, which she learned from an Otis Spann record, is a song about enduring suffering because of the hope for redemption which is just around the corner. Backed by the male gospel harmonies of her singers, Nelson eases into the tale, gliding into certain syllables which must be emphasized to increase the meaning of the words. Henderson’s guitar matches her, too – his solo starts with a repeated single note played for several bars as if it can’t escape its fate before it suddenly breaks free with the promise of greater experience. Nelson sings the final verse loud and lean with the expectation that her man is finally coming home.
Nelson does such a great job of picking songs. Percy Mayfield’s “Stranger In My Own Home Town” is a sad tale of mysterious rejection; Nelson sounds confused and lonely, but determined to get through this depth. Joe Tex’s classic early-1960s soul gem “The Love You Save (May Be Your Own)” allows Nelson to nail the sense of determination in the face of his past hurts, and the desire to give advice to prevent others from making the same mistakes. She gives such a clinic on how to inhabit a lyric with this song, how to save her powers for the perfect moments rather than starting off belting out at the top of her lungs. It should be required listening for every contestant (and judge) on American Idol.
“Lead A Horse To Water” is a wonderful soul song which Nelson thought had to be an obscure oldie but which turns out to be by contemporary songwriter Earl Bridgeman. Nelson brings all her experience to the line, “I never said that I know it all but I’m wise beyond my years,” setting up the painful realization that “You can lead a man to knowledge but you can’t make him think.” Pugh and Henderson drench their instruments in reverb which adds to the entrancement of the recording.
Steve's Bottom Line
Tracy Nelson makes absolutely no wrong moves in this stunning return to the blues of her youth. Victim Of The Blues is one of those records that instantly displays its warmth and pleasures, and then slowly reveals even more depth of emotion with each listen. After all these years, Nelson has only improved in her ability to express her passionate love for the blues. (Delta Groove Music, released April 19, 2011)
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